Jim Ford: Harlan County

Jim Ford's overlooked masterpiece gets a reissue.

Jim Ford

Harlan County

Label: Light in the Attic
US Release Date: 2011-07-26
UK Release Date: 2011-07-25

Some great albums explode like fireworks, engendering a whole constellation of successors and admirers; some shine with a more self-sufficient light, an end in themselves. Jim Ford's 1969 masterpiece Harlan County is one of the latter, for Ford was an artist whose fortunes never lived up to his talent. A timeless mix of country, funk, and hillbilly music, Harlan County was only esteemed in cult circles and by the more knowing of Ford's peers. Without imitators, without mainstream attention, Ford's album has the dubious honor of "best album you've never heard," a title which sums up well its worldly double fate of failure and success.

"Harlan County", the opening track named for Ford's childhood home in Kentucky, sounds audacious even now. Twanging guitar, silky horns and honky-tonk piano come together over Ford's frantic voice as he sings about the hard life in Harlan, where "the cold winds blow and the crops don't grow" and "a man's tired of living when he's twenty". But in the crowning touch, the chorus, the instruments all drop out and with mock seriousness, backed by singers and an organ performing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", Ford intones, "We are gathered here today to ask the Lord . . ." Then the entire funky ensemble resumes its sublime cacophony and Ford yells, his voice wavering to the brink of tunelessness, "To take us out of Harlan county!"

Yes, Harlan County is outrageous, unusual, deft and brilliant; it's also pretty damn corny. Considerations of hokeyness go by the wayside, however, because Ford and his band are so convincing. When he and his chorus sing, "I'm gonna make her love me till the cows come home", you can almost see Ford, scruffy with beard, dressed in a denim jacket and filthy with field work, railing against the closed door of his neighbor farmer's shack while the coal-laden cartoon winds of Harlan County blow all around him. When the track closes with an almost incredible whoop of countrified ecstacy -- "I'm gonna make her love me till the hee haw, yeah!" -- it takes a heartless detachment not to grin in sympathy.

Ford released few recordings in his life. He experienced more success as a songwriter, working with and for soul greats such as Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin and the Temptations, but he eventually dropped out of music and virtually disappeared until the late 2000s. A revival of interest in his work lead to talk of a tour, but the resurgence came too late: Ford died in 2007. What makes a sad human interest story, though, makes for a savory musical artifact, because Harlan County, not to mention his unreleased albums, retains the spice of novelty and the thrill of discovery. Ford's work ranks with the best songwriters of his generation, but his records are untainted by the anachronistic musical fetish so often lavished on his peers. It's sad for Ford's memory, but lucky for us: Harlan County remains a solitary delight, away and apart, to itself.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.